Skiing with Chinese Characteristics (part 1)

Even if you’re immersed in ski culture, like I was during the winter of 2010-2011, I’m still far from the best skier you’ve never heard of. However, skiing has always been part of my life, from when I could barely walk to when I worked as a ski instructor and skied every day for two months. Skiing in China was different than any skiing experience I’ve ever had.

First, I should note that my recent trip to Jiuding Mountain was my third (!!) attempt to go skiing in China, but my first successful one. My first two trips were to a place called Xiling Snow Mountain (“snow” gets added to the name of any mountain that is frequently snow capped, most memorably resulting in the name Yu Long Xue Shan or “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” in Yunnan province). Xiling, far from being just a ski area is a year-round mountain park, with everything from go-kart racing and archery to hot springs and hikes along “yin yang ridge”, so named because one side is often cloudy and the other side is usually clear, marking the edge of the Himalayan plateau climatic zone.


Attempt 1 was a misguided trip at the end of November – due to the complete lack of snow I was offered a go at “grass skiing“, using tank-tread roller blades that looked impossible to turn or stop with (no edges). The second trip was the following year, after another teacher and I gathered intel from a friend of our Chinese teacher’s (a ski-instructor in training) that there was enough snow to ski. Sadly, due to a cultural or linguistic misunderstanding, we were once again disappointed. In my case, too disappointed to take even a single photograph.

I was hesitant to try a third time after being burned twice, but on this occasion some friends invited me to go with them.  They would be driving, so I wouldn’t waste a day on a bus, and they showed photographic evidence of snow and skiing from the resort were would go to on Weibo. I was convinced. The drive from Chengdu into the mountains is always stunning. As you emerge from the omnipresent haze of the city, enormous mountains sprout from clouds. The mountains are dizzyingly steep and rocky, and beg for comparisons to China’s recent economic growth – new mountains with jagged edges, already the tallest in the world, the peaks often not visible from valley floors due to haze, prone to instability in landslides and earthquakes, villages clinging to habitable patches of terrain. And among the harshness of the rocky landscape, often unexpected beauty and serenity. Graphs of China’s economy for the last 30 years mimic these mountains of Western China, fits of peaks with crumbling falls that lead to unknown heights.

The road passes through Wenchuan, the epicenter of the 2008 earthquake that ranks among the deadliest in history, and where you can still see a shattered concrete playground that serves as a memorial for all of the schools that collapsed in the quake. Looking beyond the original catastrophe, the earthquake has brought more economic prosperity to the region than it otherwise might have expected. Post-disaster land reform and an influx of aid money led to a building boom and infrastructure development. A friend researching the effects of the earthquake by studying the change in night-time lights visible from space found the opposite of what he expected: towns that were most heavily affected by the quake appeared brighter in 2009 than 2007, even after controlling for a number of other factors and comparing those towns to similar towns that had normal economic growth. A shattered bridge still stands halfway across the river, next to a freshly-paved four-lane highway.

In contrast to a “normal” ski day for me, which includes an early wake-up time, a quick breakfast, and a blitz up to the mountains to beat the ski traffic, we took our time, met up with four other cars on the outskirts of Chengdu, and arrived at the base of the ski area for a late lunch. In a thoroughly familiar string of events, we ate lunch (hot pot) and entered protracted negotiations over discounted tickets with a local who claimed he could beat the sticker price. Wristbands with electronic tags worth admission, one pair of skis, boots, poles, and a helmet (for those daring enough to try the “extreme terrain”) were eventually awarded, my request for longer skis (169 cm, still too short for my lanky 191cm frame) was granted, and bindings were adjusted. A screwdriver was borrowed to adjust the DIN setting up from 1 after I discovered I could walk out of my bindings. I had to explain that I was a former ski instructor to get my screwdriver privileges.

Finally, by 2:15 pm, the time that I’m usually embarking on my pen-ultimate run of the day before I get too tired and injury-prone, we hit the slopes.

To be continued in part 2 of Luke’s article on skiing in China.

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Luke Sanford

Luke Sanford is a graduate student at the University of California San Diego school of International Relations and Pacific Studies. He is focusing on International Economics, International Politics, and China Studies. He is particularly interested in trans-boundary water issues and applied game theory.

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